There are many good reasons to split the last season of “Mad Men” in half, and many of them are businessy. Let’s not pretend that creative issues are the prime movers behind such TV decisions, even on cable, even with a prestige series such as “Mad Men,” even with a forceful, quality-controlling creator such as Matthew Weiner.
When AMC recently announced that “Mad Men” would follow the “Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” and “Breaking Bad” split-season model, with seven episodes in the spring of 2014 and seven the next year, a lot of fans were, yes, mad. On the AMC site, one commenter summed it up: “For it to be strung out over two years is a mistake and not respectful to Maddicts.” They know that, more than many series on TV, “Mad Men” operates on a theme-per-season basis, as each season is set during a different year in the 1960s; the split seems to contradict that tradition. Plus, fans know that they’ll have to wait longer for story closure, and, yeah, the waiting is the hardest part.
I’m thinking that the split is a good thing. For one thing, I do want AMC to survive the loss of its two classics, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” The network has been a valuable addition to cable’s manufacturing row of quality TV, alongside HBO, FX, and Showtime, letting dramas move slowly and surely and cinematically. Spreading the last of “Mad Men” across two years will help AMC maintain its entrée to the Emmy Awards, and the resulting cachet, for an extra year. It will provide more advertising opportunities, and it will enable “Mad Men” to serve longer as a vehicle on which AMC can promote future shows. The “Breaking Bad” split was a bonus for AMC, since the ratings grew significantly during the year between the halves of the final season.
The “Mad Men” split wasn’t Weiner’s choice, but, as he told Vanity Fair, “I thought, ‘All right, I can’t argue with you if this [strategy] is what worked for ‘Breaking Bad.’” It’s still unclear how the split will affect the narrative, but I trust Weiner to make the most of the situation. He and the cast will film all 14 hours in one production cycle, unlike most shows that have split seasons, so the halves may well take place in the same period of the 1960s — but if they don’t OK, too. The guy hasn’t wronged us yet. Meanwhile, the actors will be free to move on to other projects while the last run of episodes sits in the bank.
Most of all, I like the idea of AMC and “Mad Men” making us wait. It flies in the face of the general direction of our culture, which is all about “on demand.” When we want to watch or listen to something, the thinking goes, we should be able to have it immediately, at the tips of our fingers. We’re kind of spoiled. One of the bigger motivations behind technological advances these days seems to be instant gratification. There aren’t a lot of TV episodes, movies, books, and albums that I can’t conjure up on some device at this very moment.
The recently embraced Netflix streaming model of TV series delivery — the dump of an entire season of a new show — caters to this speedy fulfillment of urges. If you fall in love with a series, you can watch all the episodes quickly, and now. Fast access and binge viewing are great things when it comes to catching up on old shows, but not all the time, for every show. I like the idea of a narrative building slowly across time, I like having an interval between episodes to imagine different possible ways forward for the story, I like the way joint viewing creates a culture around a show. That was one of the many great things about experiencing the “Breaking Bad” finale – the growing anticipation, the guessing, and then the shared satisfaction.
No, I wont deliver another rant about the limitations of Netflix episode dumps. But I am not-so-secretly pleased that AMC is going to make us wait for and conjecture about the end of one of TV’s finest shows. “We plan to take advantage of this chance to have a more elaborate story told in two parts,” Weiner said in AMC’s announcement of the split, “which can resonate a little bit longer in the minds of our audience.” Resonating — I’m for it. I’m in no rush to see “Mad Men” leave.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.